Australian Wildfires. There is no Planet B
By. Miles Bolton
Monsoon rains, albeit behind schedule, finally arrived in the Australian state of South New Wales, helping firefighters mitigate the hellish blazes overtaking the Australian landscape. The extreme pendulum shift of precipitation this past week looks both apocalyptically and almost comically lopsided. From early to mid February, the region has experienced its heaviest rainfall in years, resulting in serious flooding and the emergency rescue of hundreds of people. Even with the help of rain, two dozen fires are still ongoing in South New Wales alone. The rains have so far quenched 30 of the existing fires and helped reduce the ongoing fires with only 4 “uncontained” wildfires remaining according to the New South Wales (NSW) Rural Fire Service. These heavy rains are still washing over the continent of Australia, with wet weather alerts in Queensland and four months worth of rain ( 391.66mm) deluging the capital city, Sydney, hopefully bringing an end to the Australian wildfires.
The wildfires in Australia have been charring the continent since early September 2019; however, thankfully, the fires look to be on their last legs. At this point, the Australian wildfires have burned over 27 million acres of land across the continent--or in other words, a total area greater than the nation of Portugal. Or, for a more recent American comparison, more than 14 times the area burnt in California in 2018 has been burnt so far in Australia. Twenty five people have died and 2,500 homes have been lost since September. According to scientists approximately 1.25 billion animals of diverse taxa have perished in the wildfires. The wildfires have ravaged Eucalyptus forests, farmlands, grasslands, heathlands, and even parts of Queensland’s subtropical rainforests. And on top of the aforementioned environmental devastation, 400 million tons of CO2 have been released during the wildfires according to the European Union’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service.
The smoke released from the wildfires alone is so enormous that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has been tracking its circumnavigation across the globe, reaching as far as South America after being carried by wind patterns and pushed further up into the atmosphere by uncommon, fire-induced thunderclouds (pyrocumulonimbus clouds). Some initial evidence suggests that the smoke plumes from the fires have reached into the stratosphere, the upper layer of the atmosphere, which could have subtle climatic impacts down the line. Some of the smoke from the fires have passed over New Zealand and turned the alpine glaciers on South Island an “eerie, caramel color”. Aside from a glacial color shift, the effect of soot on glaciers reduces the albedo (reflectivity) of ice, causing it to absorb more sunlight and melt at a faster rate. The cumulative impact of the fires is compromising the atmospheric conditions in Australia and our entire planet.
“The intensity and size of bushfires in some areas has led to the creation of their own weather systems, generating pyrocumulonimbus clouds, trapping heat and generating strong wind and lightning strikes, in turn sparking further fires.” - Red Cross reported on January 8th
Australia’s landscape has long been a match away from a blazing inferno, so it’s reasonable for people to wonder how much climate change impacts this reality and to what extent. Australians are no stranger to intense wildfires but the flames that burned through the end of 2019 and the start of 2020 set a new standard.
The Australian government, arguably for the first time since the Black Saturday fires of 2009, has been forced to reevaluate how it handles fire management going forward. The Black Saturday fires occured in the southeastern state of Victoria, killing 173 people over 2 days not including extensive property damage. This catastrophe prompted the state government to try to buy back land from people living in areas with high fire risk as part of what would’ve been a longer term effort to relocate people to less fire prone areas. Unfortunately few Australians consented to the planned relocation and life continued as usual.
After the Black Saturday fires in 2009 the Planning Institute of Australia put together a national resettlement plan, highlighting areas of Australia that would be least affected by climate change; setting the pieces in motion for when residents are more willing to change course. The aftermath of those disastrous fires also prompted Aboriginal leaders to request that the Australian government adopt indigenous fire management practices. Their recommendations weren’t heeded but their methods have centuries of knowledge and results behind them.
“They’ve got to drastically change their relationship with the surrounding environment; they’ve got to drastically change the surrounding environment in order to be able to survive and reduce their vulnerability” - Ross Bradstock, director of the Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires at the University of Wollongong. “Another option is the retreat from flammable places.”
The Aboriginal community in Australia has long held a deep understanding of their fire prone landscape and how to effectively manage it for the betterment of wildlife and their communities. In preparation for fire season Aboriginals would use a method called mosaic cool-fire burning, where they would light small groups of low-intensity fires during the cool season to burn off especially flammable underbrush to reduce the supply of flammable material when wildfires set in. Aboriginal communities would also use these low intensity fires to create wildlife corridors, burning through thick and prickly vegetation to give wildlife easier routes for escaping summertime fires. By reducing the supply of flammable material in the landscape and providing escape routes for wildfires, Aboriginals have long been able to reduce the impact of potentially cataclysmic wildfires.
Granted, the wildfires of today demand more than these methods could provide alone due to the intensified conditions brought on by climate change. It would be like comparing the young lean Barry Bonds during his Pirates days to the Barry Bonds that hit 70 homers in the Bay Area with a neck the size of a natural gas pipeline. Aboriginal methods would be helpful for reducing the magnitude of the flames and the duration; however, these techniques can’t solve the problem on their own and would serve as a complementary piece to a more comprehensive fire management strategy.
Murrandoo Yamer, a Gangalidda leader and director of the Carpentia Land Council Aboriginal Corporation, started the Jigija Fire Training Program to teach more people how to incorporate Abroriginal practices into their fire management strategies. The program trains pastoralists, volunteer firefighters, indigenous rangers, and the mining industry on fire management while incorporating practical Aboriginal culture and history as a means of cultural preservation. The aforementioned practices of mosaic cool fire burning and the creation of wildlife corridors are the oft taught practices in the program. The program also serves to deepen participants’ understanding of fire ecology and the interconnectedness of the ecosystems that make up the regions they live in.
The Jigija Fire Training Program is a step in the right direction; however, it’s too small-scale at the moment to provide long lasting impact in the ongoing fight against wildfires and climate change in Australia. Until Australia’s government adopts a more proactive role in fire management and combating climate change, it’s hard to see conditions improving. Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison has continuously downplayed the link between the wildfires and climate change despite the dearth of scientific evidence saying otherwise.
“The suggestion that any way shape or form that Australia, accountable for 1.3% of the world’s emissions, that the individual actions of Australia are impacting directly on specific fire events, whether it’s here or anywhere in the world, that doesn’t bear up to credible scientific evidence either”- Prime Minister Scott Morrison
Being that Australia is the world’s 4th largest producer of coal and the world’s largest exporter of coal and liquefied natural gas, the government is reluctant to own up to the impact of these industries. Don’t be fooled by their 1.3% contribution to greenhouse emissions--it seems like a small percentage, but if you include exported coal emission it goes up to 3.3% and when you factor in that Australia holds 0.33% of world population, Australia has one of the highest per capita carbon footprints in the world. According to data from the World Bank, Australia has the 2nd highest carbon footprint in the world at 15.4 metric tonnes of CO2 per capita, sandwiched between the U.S (1st) and Canada (3rd). That being said, Australia has a lot of work to do. In the meantime, we can help by donating to wildfire relief funds and by promoting/donating the Jigija Indigenous Fire Training Program as well as other programs that are working to address wildfires and climate change in Australia.
Donate to Wildfire Relief and Fire Management Efforts in Australia:
Jigija Indigenous Fire Training Program
WIRES Wildlife Rescue, Australian Wildfire Relief Fund
Australian Wildfire Relief Stickers by Rise Up Coffee
-another way to donate money to WIRES, buy $2 latte art stickers and the money will be matched and donated by Rise Up to the WIRES relief fund.